The Ultimate Block Party

Students prepare to work at the Ultimate Block Party in NYC“This is brilliant,” a dad whispered to no one in particular as his two children bounded toward a refrigerator box draped with purple and green fabric. The box was surrounded by egg cartons, ribbons, buckets of paint, and thrift-store furniture. Children were romping and roaming through this “Pop-up Playground,” using the recycled materials—and their imaginations—to create colorful forts and castles, and, simply, to play.

This creative playground was one station of many at the Ultimate Block Party held in Central Park on October 3, where children and their families could explore an array of activities, including New York’s Largest Simon Says, a Sesame Street Sing-a-long, Costume Making, and a Lego Extravaganza.

Play is in serious danger of disappearing from children’s lives, many educators believe—yet it is essential to the way children learn. The organizers of Ultimate Block Party hope to educate parents, communities, and policy-makers about the value of play and the connections between play and learning.

Which is no small task at an event involving thousands of parents and children. To assess whether they were accomplishing their goals, the event’s organizers enlisted the help of research partners Rachel Grob and Mark Schlesinger. Schlesinger teaches in the health advocacy graduate program, and Grob is a consultant with and former director of the Childhood Development Institute at SLC.

The Child Development Institute “supports play as a central underpinning for healthy childhood development,” says Grob. “We also believe play is a child’s basic right.”

In addition to assessing the effectiveness of the day itself, Grob and Schlesinger wanted to study how parents and the public think about play. “We want to take a step back and understand what people’s assumptions and attitudes really are,” Grob said—so they designed a survey that incorporated both objectives.

Grob and Schlesinger enlisted the help of Kim Ferguson (faculty) and project coordinator Ashley Gephart MA ’10 to recruit Sarah Lawrence students—both undergraduate and graduate— to help conduct the survey. Before the event, the evaluation team trained 24 excited volunteers on how to approach parents. The students were encouraged to focus on parents who “look bored,” and invite them to answer the ten-minute questionnaire.

A few hours later, the students entered the park decked out in official T-shirts and armed with surveys. The atmosphere of fun was contagious: kids were jump roping, hoola-hooping, and blowing on kazoos. A man on stilts walked through the mass of families, nannies, children, and dogs, while Disney music blasted on huge speakers.

The students walked past drum circles and dancing troupes to their assigned stations. Along with basic inquiries about the activities the children had visited, they asked parents questions such as “Do you think that play and learning are connected?” and “Do you think that children who play are more likely to grow up to be successful adults?”

Parents were also asked to rank the relevancy of statements such as “Play is the right of every child,” “Play is practice for adult responsibilities,” and “Play reveals the inner self.”

The students conducted over 250 surveys during the event. The survey was possible “only because of the students’ skill and enthusiasm,” says Grob.

Grob, Schlesinger, and Gephart recently participated in a National Science Foundation debriefing about the Block Party, designed to assess whether this outreach strategy can be replicated elsewhere. Going forward, they will use the data collected in Central Park to design a larger-scale study focused on developing nuanced public awareness messages about play—and encouraging public policy makers to make play a central part of children’s lives.